Loss of steering led to fiery collision in New York’s Verrazano Narrows

After the collision, the crude oil aboard the tanker caught fire, creating a ball of flames that licked the car deck of the bridge 228 feet above the water’s surface. (Associated Press)

Just before midnight on June 1, 1973, CV Sea Witch left Staten Island, N.Y., carrying 445 containers below deck and 285 containers above deck. Built by Bath Iron Works in 1968, it was small by today’s standards. Sea Witch had a length of 610 feet overall and a gross tonnage of 17,902. The bridge and officer’s quarters were located forward of the holds, while the machinery spaces and crews’ quarters were aft, giving the ship the appearance of a fat Great Lakes boat.

John T. “Jack” Cahill, the pilot, active since 1948, took charge as the ship sailed east toward St. George, Staten Island. In addition to Cahill, Capt. John Paterson and three other members of the vessel’s crew occupied the compact bridge. Paterson had also positioned the chief mate and two seamen on the forecastle to help spot other marine traffic and to be ready to lower the anchors should an emergency arise.

Twenty-nine minutes after midnight, Cahill ordered the speed increased to full harbor speed of 13.4 knots. With the ebb tide traveling at approximately 2 to 3 knots, Sea Witch’s actual speed was about 15 knots. As the ship passed the ferry terminal at the tip of St. George, he directed the helmsman to bring the ship to a heading of 167° in order to begin transiting the Narrows separating Staten Island from Brooklyn. Seven minutes later he corrected the course to 156°.

When the ship did not respond as expected, the helmsman told the captain that Sea Witch was no longer steering. Paterson remarked, “That damn steering gear again.” He attempted to correct the problem by transferring steering control from the starboard system to the port system. Cahill also took corrective action, ordering, “Hard left rudder.”

Both the captain’s and the pilot’s attempts proved futile. The port and starboard units fed into a single mechanism controlled by a faulty “key,” a device similar to a cotter pin that had come undone. Without it, all steering control was lost, and Sea Witch was being forced out of the channel toward Staten Island.

Cahill immediately ordered the engines to full astern and the crew on the bow to let go the port anchor. He blew a series of short rapid blasts on the ship’s whistle signaling that Sea Witch was in distress and ordered the general alarm bell rung to alert the crew, many of whom were in their quarters.

The tanker Esso Brussels lay anchored in the southernmost Narrows anchorage just north of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The tanker carried 319,402 barrels of light Nigerian crude destined for Exxon’s Bayway Refinery. Esso Brussels was a handsome ship built in 1960. At 25,906 grt, it retained classic tanker lines with its bridge and the officer’s quarters located amidships, while the engines and aft deckhouse were located toward the stern.

Capt. Constant Dert commanded a mixed European crew of 36 men and one woman, Gisele Rome, the first steward.

The bow crew on Sea Witch couldn’t release the port anchor. By now, it was closing in on Esso Brussels and Cahill locked the whistle to sound continuously. The first mate ordered his men to release the starboard anchor. They freed the windlass, but the chain would not run. Cahill and Paterson ordered them off the bow, and they retreated behind the forward superstructure. Only two and a half minutes after the pilot and captain realized the ship was out of control, Sea Witch was a mere 200 feet from the starboard side of Esso Brussels. Cahill advised Paterson to clear the bridge, and they made it as far as the boat deck behind the forward superstructure when the night exploded.

About two minutes before impact, the mate standing watch on Esso Brussels’s bridge heard Sea Witch’s whistle. His first thought was that the disabled ship would pass astern of his tanker, but as it continued to veer in his direction he sounded the alarm, awakening the crew.

Sea Witch rammed its reinforced bow into the starboard side of the tanker between the midship and aft deckhouses, piercing three cargo tanks. The conflagration was instantaneous and flaming oil began to spread rapidly. Capt. Dert supervised the crew as they lowered the motorized aft port lifeboat. Despite the chaos, the crew managed to launch the boat, only to have trouble releasing it from its lines. That accomplished, a mate tried to turn a hand crank to start the engine, but the space needed was filled with terrified crew, making this impossible. A last attempt to row away from the advancing fire was thwarted by the engines of Sea Witch, now in reverse, which pulled both ships down the Narrows despite the resistance from the tanker’s anchors. The movement created suction, pinning the lifeboat against the tanker and forcing the crew to jump in a desperate hope of escaping the flames that rounded the stern.

The fireboat Firefighter arrived minutes after the collision. The firefighters could not tell that two ships were involved as both vessels were enveloped in a sea of flames that extended 3,000 yards in front of them.

The inferno began to create havoc on board Sea Witch as the contents of the on-deck containers quickly caught fire and began to explode. Aerosol cans of hair spray, shaving cream and spray paint exploded, turning into lethal projectiles that tore through the air.

The crew first took shelter near the stern, outside the aft deckhouse, but the heat, smoke and blast effects of exploding containers drove them inside. Their cabin of refuge had a half-inch fire hose that they used to spray the bulkheads, deck and overhead. They watched in horror as the water evaporated into steam. Without the fire hose, they would have been baked to death, because the fire department didn’t find them for almost an hour and a half. The hose kept them alive, but they had to endure a hurricane of noise and pressure that assaulted their senses and sanity as containers, their cargoes and the ship’s own gear erupted.

The fire aboard the tanker also ignited containers aboard Sea Witch. Although most of the containership’s crew survived the fire, the captain and two others died. Thirteen people from the  tanker’s crew died, including its master. (Associated Press)

By then the life and death struggle of Esso Brussels’s crew had played itself out. Tugs rescued the survivors, but 13 of the crew were lost, including the captain.

Flames from the burning oil radiated 200 feet out from both ships and rose so high that as the ships passed under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, they scorched the bottom of the bridge, 228 feet above the water’s surface. Fortunately, the wreck passed under the bridge quickly, preventing the steel from suffering heat damage. South of the bridge, the ships grounded in Gravesend Bay.

Fire fighters tackled the fire blazing on the port side of Esso Brussels. Amazingly, despite the intensity of the blaze, none of the oil that remained in the vessel’s intact tanks caught fire. It was only when the firefighters extinguished the fire on the port side that they realized the bow of Sea Witch was embedded in the starboard side and that two vessels were involved in the inferno. They then proceeded along the port side of the container ship toward its stern.

Fires on board Sea Witch continued to spread as the contents of more and more containers caught fire or exploded. Breathing was an ordeal even though the trapped crew covered their faces with wet towels and knelt down on the deck. Sensing that their desperate plight was not improving, Cahill took the initiative to signal rescuers. He grabbed a blanket, had it soaked with the hose, wrapped it around himself and stepped outside waving his flashlight toward Firefighter. The crew spotted Cahill and, using their water cannons, fought through the flaming water to reach the stern. Two ladders were raised from the fireboat, allowing the trapped men to descend to safety. However, the captain and two crewmembers died.

The fires on Esso Brussels were mostly under control once daylight arrived and the Coast Guard and fire department agreed to have tugs separate the vessels. After the tanker was refloated, the fireboats easily extinguished what little oil continued to burn.

Sea Witch was in much worse condition, as almost all the on-deck containers were still burning. Four fireboats were ordered to use maximum water power to put out the fires. This caused a list of 25° and forced the firefighting crews to reduce their efforts to two nozzles from a single fireboat. Containers burned or smoldered for several days.

Exxon worked with the Coast Guard and fire department to unload the remaining cargo from the tanker into barges that carried it to the refinery. Once empty, Esso Brussels was towed to the Bethlehem Shipyard in Hoboken, N.J., to await disposition.

The Coast Guard estimated that of the 319,000 barrels of oil the tanker carried, 16,000 barrels escaped after the collision. What didn’t burn washed up on Staten Island, Bay Ridge and Coney Island, but the same low flash point that made this crude so volatile also caused most it to evaporate.

Salvage of the containership was far more complicated. It wasn’t until June 14 that a salvage crew was able to pump out enough water from below decks to bring the vessel back to an even keel. CO2 was pumped into the holds to stabilize the contents of the containers stored under deck, and the remaining fires in the on-deck containers were extinguished. Sea Witch was offloaded, and then towed to a pier at the former Brooklyn Navy Yard, where it would remain for eight years.

Coast Guard hearings opened on Monday, June 4, and it quickly came to light that Sea Witch had had frequent steering problems. The investigation revealed that 10 incidents involving the steering had occurred since 1969. The immediate response from the Coast Guard was to advise all operators of vessels with similar steering systems to modify the mechanics to prevent a failure.

Exxon sold the tanker to the Greek ship owner John D. Latsis on an “as is where is” basis. He had the vessel towed to Piraeus, Greece, where it was rebuilt and sailed under a variety of names for several of his companies until it was withdrawn from service and scrapped in 1985.

Various American maritime firms expressed interest in salvaging the stern sections of Sea Witch. It was finally towed to Newport News Shipbuilding’s yard in Virginia. All spaces forward of the engine room deckhouse were cut off and scrapped. They were replaced by a new forebody built at the yard. Converted to a Jones Act U.S.-flag chemical carrier, it was renamed Chemical Discoverer and still sails today as Chemical Pioneer.

John Delach worked in the marine insurance industry for over 30 years as a claims agent, steamship representative, surveyor and broker. Since retiring in 2000, he has been pursuing a second career as a writer.

By Professional Mariner Staff